The baby-boomer Sportster that was born in 1957 has shown steady evolution over its long lifespan. The “modern” Sporty really arrived in 1986 with the aptly named Evolution motor; it brought fewer oil leaks and increased performance over the Ironhead Sporty that preceded it. A belt final drive replaced the chain in 1991, along with the addition of a fifth gear, but the biggest news was a new frame with rubber engine mounts that debuted in 2004. Fuel injection showed up in 2007, completing the modernization cycle.
Eric Bennett of Bennett’s Performance captured multiple land speed records at Bonneville on Sportsters including the current 1650cc Pushrod Partial Streamliner class record of 186.777 mph. He describes stock 42-horsepower 883s as “fairly gutless,” but more grunt is available. Eric recommends an intake kit ($340.99) from K&N, which includes a washable air filter, velocity stack and related hardware. To improve throttle response and overall power he uses a Dynojet jet kit ($97.99) for carbs or a Power Commander ($369.99) for fuel injection, along with dyno tuning.
Bennett also suggests a two-into-one exhaust—from Bassanni, Vance & Hines, or Supertrapp—over open drag pipes. If you outgrow the little 883’s mild character, you can easily graduate to a 1200cc. At less than $1000 installed, a big-bore kit gives a lotta boom for the bucks. Eric also warns that minor lowside crashes to the left can result in a sheared-off transmission shifter pin, which can leave the bike stuck in one gear. Replacing this 50-cent pin requires a complete engine and tranny disassembly.
Depending upon the model, some XLs have the traditional “peanut” tank, with around 2 gallons’ capacity, meaning you’ll probably roll through a gas station every couple days. Any notion of touring indicates later, rubber-mount 883s that are fitted with a larger, 3.3-gallon tank.
The best Sportsters on the used market are those closest to stock, or with a modicum of senisble modifications. Well-maintained, nearly original examples should be reliable, durable rides, and easily the most affordable way into The Motor Club.
|Classic, torquey V-twin.
|Underpowered. Miniscule fuel capacity.
|Primal pavement pounder.
|2011 | XL883L Superlow $7250
|2009 | XL883C Custom $5600
Harley-Davidson XL1200 Sportster Sport
1998 | $3400
Five-speed transmission, dual disc brakes and fully adjustable suspension make this earlier Evolution-powered Sporty stand out in a sea of chrome and tassels as a functional back roads rider.
Harley Davidson XR1200 Sportster
2009 | $8300
Why throw thousands in performance work at Uncle Bubba’s V-Twin Shack and Taxidermy Emporium when you can get a race-bred bike right from The Motor Co.? The XR didn’t sell well new, but could easily become a collectable.
2009 | $6400
Looking for an alternative to potato-potato? Try a Turnip! The Thruxton combines copious, counterbalanced power with capable handling in a classy café cruiser. A good value for the money new, but even better used.